Montgomery to ID with finger vein scanners

By Cody Calamaio
Gazette Staff
Thursday, August 12, 2010; GZ16

Access to the gym might be only a touch away as the Montgomery County Department of Recreation moves away from plastic passes and toward a new technology that turns bodies into bar codes.

Beginning in the fall, county officials plan to replace the plastic cards customers use to gain access to pools, weight rooms and community center programs at the Department of Recreation's 33 facilities with biometric finger vein scanners.

The move is expected to save the county $50,000 annually, said Robin Riley, a division chief in the Department of Recreation.

The scanners, which resemble a computer mouse, create a unique code for each person. The devices read vein patterns by reacting with hemoglobin in blood, said Michael Trader, president of Atlanta-based M2SYS Technology, a vendor of the scanners.

Officials will test the scanners in three locations before using them in all centers in the spring, Riley said. The Germantown Indoor Swim Center, the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton and either the Potomac Community Recreation Center or the Marilyn J. Praisner Community Recreation Center in Burtonsville will be the first to receive scanners because they are the busiest locations.

Reaction from center users has been mixed.

"When you go to jail they get your fingerprints, not when you go to play," said Sanome Barbieri, 40, of Chevy Chase. She moved from Italy a few months ago and uses the Potomac Community Recreation Center to play pool and take classes.

John Leslie, 81, of Potomac uses the gym at the Potomac Community Recreation Center three times a week. "I don't see a problem with it either way," he said. "It would be easier. You don't have to carry a card."

Officials calculate that the use of scanners, as opposed to cards, could save the department $50,000 annually in supply and maintenance costs for the card system, Riley said. About 90,000 cards are in circulation and, although free to the customer, each costs the department about $1.50, she said.

Officials from the department's software vendor, Active Network, have been pushing for the upgrade to scanners for three years, Riley said. The county plans to upgrade its software next month.

The card scanners at the Department of Recreation cost about $2,000 dollars each, said James Reyes, a general manager with Active Network. The biometric vein scanners Active Network could sell the department from M2SYS Technology would cost $367 each, he said.

Although recreation officials have not identified a vendor for the machines, they estimate they could buy the finger scanners for $100 each, Riley said, adding that two will be purchased for most of the county recreation facilities.

For some, the scanners are a step too far.

Rose Campbell, 54, of Potomac, a trainer who has been using the Potomac Community Recreation Center's weight room for 22 years, said she isn't convinced that the machines won't store private information.

"Who in their right mind came up with this? Is this antiterrorism or something?" Campbell asked. "This is America, for God's sakes. It's America, and we go to the gym with our little access cards."

The system is liable for abuse unless personal information is kept separate and deleted when no longer in use, said Mike Mage, co-chairman of the Montgomery chapter of the ACLU of Maryland.

The ACLU has opposed national identification cards that use biometric technology and programs that would require children to be fingerprinted for school lunches, but the scope of the biometric vein scanners has yet to be determined, said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

"In some sense this is complete overkill, and the form of identification they're using is a fairly new technology, and we don't yet know how and where it will be deployed," Rocah said.

The machine does not record fingerprints, and individuals are not tracked, Riley said, adding that data are not accessible by other county departments or the police.

Information such as name, address, phone number and a photo is visible to employees when access cards are scanned, and is used to identify what classes or memberships the person has paid for, she said. It also can be used to identify who is in the building. The scanners will bring up the same information.

Statistical information is reviewed by CountyStat, a county analytic initiative, to gather data on repeat customers, Zip codes people travel from and to identify popular programs, Riley said.

Children younger than 18 months do not need cards, and children younger than 18 years cannot register for an account without a parent's consent, Riley said. A limited number of cards will be available for people with no fingers, she said.

County officials held no public information meetings to educate the community about the scanners, Riley said. They were announced in the Montgomery County Summer Guide for Recreation and Parks Programs.

Riley said county officials decided to move forward with the scanners because doing so would save money. She added that officials didn't hold community meetings on the proposed change and didn't formally tell staff about it because the department has a lot of seasonal workers.

"It's funny because they're saying this in the guide and they never told us," said Scotland Neighborhood Recreation Center Director Kimberly Bryant. "We just heard it going through training."

The card reader at the Scotland center has been broken since she began as director two years ago, so visitors -- the majority of whom are children and teenagers -- sign in on paper, she said.

The recreation department heard many of the same concerns when it switched from paper sign-in to cards about eight years ago, Riley said.

"At one of senior centers, they were passionately against it and now they love it," Riley said. "They can't wait to get their card scanned."

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